Zama Ndlovu

We're too comfortable with being led

2012-06-13 08:49

Zama Ndlovu

This coming Saturday, South Africa will honour the thousands of marching Soweto school children and the estimated 200 that died fighting a government decision that aimed to force them to study maths and social sciences in Afrikaans.

This month we celebrate the bravery of learners whose impatience would become the turning point in our history that would ultimately lead to our political liberation. Being a country that is blessed with a long list of heroes – a handful of which are still alive – Youth Day is a much needed reminder that change is often a collective effort, driven by scores of people who see beyond their own fears.

Ask anyone about the current deterioration in the state of South Africa and you are bound to get the response that “It’s the lack of leadership”. It has become a common occurrence to read the nostalgic recollection of great struggle day leadership and then lament about the lack of great leaders today.

Leadership inherited

Every day we are bombarded with headlines of corruption and maladministration, while our country, which was once geared towards prosperity, seems to be rapidly falling apart. However, although cause for concern is evident, lack of leadership has become a convenient discussion area for those that are alert enough to see the fault in the status quo, but who are too languid to do more.

Leadership is a tough quality to define, and general interpretations of leadership are often as a quality that is good, rather than simply a quality that can be used for good or bad. The elusiveness of this quality has allowed us to put people on pedestals, thus absolving ourselves from any responsibility to change what is.

Consequently, South Africa is now a nation where leadership is inherited. Leaders use the language of monarchy and not that of civil servants, they rule rather than govern. Citizens have been relegated to the peripheries of political decision-making, their role reduced to inaudible rubber-stampers. But much of this is by choice.

Beneath the discontent with the current litter of leaders, are a mixture of complacency and a deeper fear of changing the status quo.

Forcing us to pay attention

We, South Africans, have become too comfortable with being led. Much of our discontent with leadership is that they aren’t simply doing their work and leaving us alone so we can go about ours. The poor quality of their outputs is forcing us to pay attention and to do more, and we don’t like this. In our ideal world, leadership would be a saintly quality thrust on a(n) (un)fortunate few, and the bulk of us would be responsible for applaud or complaint, and not much else.

In addition to this, we have become fearful of our leaders. This may be partly due to the fact that we don’t directly elect them, but it is probably also because of the burgeoning power that they have. It is disheartening to observe the length of the process of removing officials from positions when there is a mountain of evidence that proves their corruption. It is even more disturbing to see public servants responsible for unearthing corruption, being publicly taken to task by leadership.

However, citizens can choose to do more than swinging between melancholy, rage and violence and direct their energies towards more constructive, assertive and collective efforts. It is not simply the job of “thought-leaders” to voice discontent with the current crop of elected leaders; it is also the job of citizens to form alliances that speaks beyond political affiliations. South African citizens have yet to become a lobby group with a clear agenda.

Too many believe that the administration’s mistakes only affect only the poor. Too many believe that as long as there are private sector alternatives, they have no need to participate in holding the government accountable. Too many cannot see how our fortunes are so intrinsically linked.

Take accountability

We must redefine leadership, from position to action. We must see leadership as responsibility and not as birthright. As citizens, we must take accountability for the state of our relationship with elected public servants, and then assign ourselves the responsibility to fix it.

It starts with the little things, like knowing your ward councillor’s name and contact details, and holding them accountable. If you are a registered voter with political affiliations, attend your party’s ward meetings, ensure that they are held accountable for their plans of action. It starts with educating ourselves on topical issues, rather than simply defaulting to a party or group position. It starts with moving beyond identifying a fault, to fixing it. It starts with acknowledging the responsibilities that come with taking our power back.

In 1976, there were no cellphones, no e-mail, no Twitter or Facebook, yet thousands of children were able to congregate and take action for a common cause. There is little doubt that on that winter morning, those young children would have been scared of what lay ahead. This was a government that did not value black lives, no matter how young or how innocent. Each one of those children chose to bravely stand up for their individual rights. They knew that brutal policemen with loaded guns waited ahead.

But they went ahead and marched.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

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